Friday, June 05, 2009

Archaea get no respect from the New York Times

There was kind of funny and certainly interesting article in the New York Times on June 4: Greening the Herds - Trying to Limit Cows' 'Emissions'

The article by Leslie Kaufman discussed how there are attempts in some dairy farms in the US to change the diet of cows to reduce their methane output. The methane is a strong greenhouse gas and in total cows make a surprisingly large global contribution to greenhouse gases. The article states:
Cows have digestive bacteria in their stomachs that cause them to belch methane, the second-most-significant heat-trapping emission associated with global warming after carbon dioxide.
Alas, this is not correct. Yes, bacteria in the cow rumen contribute to the production of methane. But they do not make the methane. The methane is made by archaea (for those not in the know, archaea are a distinct group of organisms relative to bacteria - they resemble bacteria in many ways but are a separate branch on the tree of life). For those of us who study archaea this is a major slight. A diss. A taunt. A sad day. And all those other things. Not sure how we archaea fans will have our revenge but I swear we will. Too bad Carl Zimmer does not think that this is important enough to go on one of his newspaper fact chekcing investigations.


  1. Maybe if Archaea researchers called them Archaeologists, they might garner more attention? (maybe new sources of funding too!)

  2. I made the same joke 20 years ago to Jorge Escalante, my undergraduate Microbial Physiology instructor -- Jorge was a great fan of the Archaea, having worked with Ralph Wolfe (and was probably responsible for me doing my graduate work at Illinois). Of course, being at the University of Wisconsin, even his course was in the department of *Bacteriology*

  3. I thought 'bacteria' was synonymous with 'prokarya'... and Archaea being a form of 'Archaebacteria' (vs Eubacteria)...? I'm pretty sure I've encountered some people using it like that...

    So are bacteria basically 'not Neomura' then?

    Not like the New York Times reporters would know the difference or anything...

  4. PSI - most of those terms are historical. Archaea tofday are not a subset of bacteria. They are separate. And apparently according to the NY Times, unequal.

  5. Oh but TC-S disagrees with you, btw:

    (only a brief correspondence piece; it would be quite rude of me to unleash a full article of Tom-ness on you on a Friday night XP )

    Since I'm being slowly drafted into the Cult of TC-S, I must adhere to his usage of the term 'bacterium'. Or prove him wrong. Taxonomy is far from my own turf though, so I'd avoid the latter...besides, Eubacteria, bacteria, prokarya are all paraphyletic anyway...

  6. 1. Dont have access to those non OA articles right now

    2. No need to prove him right or wrong. Despite my general pleasure in reading all things TC-S, the current consensus among the evolutionary biology and evolutionary microbiology community is that there are three main branches on the tree: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes. Given that, and given that I support the notion of phylogenetic based classiciation and used of terms, therefore, bacteria is a term that should be used for the organisms in the domain (as in Woese) bacteria. As an aside, I also support this consensus but even if I did not, I would think the New York Times should use what is the consensus and not what TC-S says.

  7. (somehow I doubt NYT even knows who TC-S is... >_> )

    Didn't mean to argue or anything; just rambling to procrastinate with real work =P. Or rather, with going to bed, after which I'll have to do work tomorrow...

    And TC-S is awesome: "Organisms are not mere assemblages of genes, whether inherited vertically or laterally, but cells (or integrated assemblies of cells) in which there is a mutualistic cooperation of genomes, membranes, skeletons and catalysts that together make a physically and functionally coherent unit capable of reproduction and evolution."

    That warms my heart... =D

    I should probably stop taking up your comments space... 'night!

  8. Over the course of his career Tom Cavalier-Smith has agreed with and disagreed with almost every possible interpretation of early evolution. That's not to diss him- - the man is brilliant, and his ever-changing opinions are always based on a mass of excellent evidence.